Across the Ether

Forgive the indulgence while I briefly divert along a Geoff Manaugh-type tangent.

The Singapore strategy was employed by the United Kingdom as its dominant  in the interwar years, up until about 1941…when Singapore fell. Of course, the origins of the Singapore strategy arose as a counter to the Japanese and US Navies, the Royal Navy’s original nemesis of the German High Seas Fleet having been scuttled at Scapa Flow.

More importantly, though, was the later role that ghostly, sunken fleet would play: a source for “low-background steel.”

3D model of the wreck of the Kronprinz Wilhelm at Scapa Flow.

Now, the very concept of low-background steel is one that makes me shudder with excitement. Low-background steel is a necessary component in certain devices, particularly medical equipment and Geiger counters. The latter is of prime interest: nuclear explosions from 1944 onwards raised the worldwide level of background radiation to the point where obtaining a proper control requires quite literally salvaging the past.*

Every ounce of steel that has been produced in the postwar error has been irrevocably contaminated by a natural sin of background radiation levels and radionuclides. Humankind changed the entirety of the natural world. It’s kind of a mind-boggling idea.

What also intrigues me is that thought that a century from now our materials might be useful for similar reasons, as a sort of living archeological project or time capsule that doesn’t just reveal something about the past, but is a necessity; The only available option in the absence of time travel.

We live inside our own time capsules. The coveted “prewar” buildings in New York and Providence and Boston abound, particularly in the latter two, in which close to 40% of their housing stock was built before 1940. Could that too have some relevance to future researchers and laboratory scientists? Housing patterns and living arrangements before the advent of doormen and glass-and-steel constructs? And seeing the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy, of sunken cars and drowned tunnels, one wonders if someday the subways and highways of New York might become their own aquatic monument to the past. The DC Metro, “America’s Subway,” submerged beneath the waves.

It is, of course, difficult to hear about low-background steel without thinking of the Fallout 3 series’ “pre-war artifacts.” In that universe, the Great War is when everything changed and hundreds of millions perished in a nuclear holocaust. But a player can still find mementos of a lost era. Pre-war money, steak, and soda can all be picked up – and in the case of the latter, consumed. Even the aesthetic of that bygone age – a heavily saccharine version of a 1950s idyll – remains a coveted item in the form of furniture for your house.

Perhaps, if there’s a unifying theme across all these disparate threads, it’s that war and conflict and destruction serve as a natural line of demarcation, and once crossed, nothing will ever be the same again. What reserve fleets and low-background steel and prewar buildings and all the rest offer us is a tenuous link with that past, and a means of making it tangible. It’s comforting to think that maybe no era is truly lost forever.

*It should be noted that since the advent of the Partial Test-Ban Treaty background levels have dropped worldwide. But they still remain significantly higher than pre-war levels.

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